Whenever a new wrinkle or grey hair appears, most of us blame our mothers for our bad genes, then head to the latest beauty counter for a wonder cream. Some of us even pay a plastic surgeon to give us back our youth.
But the real secret of ageing well, and living longer has nothing to do with genes, good luck or doctors – it’s down to what we eat and how we handle stress.
“As little as ten years ago it was thought that having good genes was your best bet for ageing well,” says nutrition expert Patrick Holford, who co-authored The 10 Secrets Of Healthy Ageing with journalist Jerome Burne. “That’s no longer true. According to the latest research, there’s a great deal we can do to stay healthy as we age.”
Defying the clock
Scientists, he says, have discovered that markers for how well you are ageing – found in every cell in your body – can be altered by, among other things, the kind of exercise that we do, the food we eat and the way we cope under pressure.
One argument for focusing on ageing well is that, in general, we’re all going to be around a lot longer. “Life expectancy in the UAE has risen to 81 years for women and 77 years for men according to the World Health Organisation, compared to an average of 75 for both in 2003,” says Dr Sameem Matto, a specialist in internal medicine at the Canadian Specialist Hospital in Dubai. “But many of us are also popping more medication,” says Patrick, who believes that in the near future, half the population will be taking more than five different types of pills every single day, as we battle things like stiffening arteries, aching joints and fading memory.
What’s worrying economists and those shaping health policy, Patrick says, is that the number of years of virtual immobility has increased. This is, in part, due to a lack of awareness of how to adapt our habits later in life to keep us in good health as we get older. European research shows that while women are living longer, their quality of life is reduced. A woman now has, on average, 9.8 years of disability, data from the College of Medicine in the UK suggests. That means not being able to climb ten steps, walk a quarter of a mile or bend or kneel without using special equipment to assist you.
But Patrick says this gloomy scenario can be avoided by learning a new life skill: How to age well. “In order to take charge of your future, you need a plan,” he says. “As children, you have lots of help learning how to do exams, and later in life you have help with becoming good at your job and your hobbies. But no one tells us how to age well. If you change your attitude and regard your body in a similar way to a home, which needs regular maintenance and preventative work, we can alter our later years, prolong our life and improve its quality.”
OK, here’s the bad news. After a certain point, the ageing process starts to turn against us. It’s an almost imperceptible decline, but by the age of 40 you’re already starting to lose muscle mass at the rate of one per cent a year, and your tendons and ligaments are becoming less elastic. Only 20 per cent of people in the UK aged between 65 and 74 exercise enough to reverse that.
In the UAE, the figure is even smaller. The Dubai Household Health Survey (2009-2010), conducted by the Dubai Health Authority and the Dubai Statistics Centre shows that only 19 per cent of the population gets enough exercise, says Dr Matto. “This isn’t surprising considering that many people come up with all sorts of excuses for not exercising. They say they’re too busy and some even blame it on the weather.”
By the age of 50 your levels of the hormones that are needed in order to maintain muscle mass and repair skin will have dropped sharply, meaning you have to work harder to obtain results that used to happen easily.
Sixty-five is the watershed year. Fifty per cent of heart attacks, most strokes, three-quarters of cancers and 95 per cent of deaths caused by pneumonia occur after this age.
Half of those who reach 65 have signs of oesteoarthritis, and every year after the age of 65 one in two people in the UK will have a bad fall that causes a fracture, results in a hospital visit or will require full-time care.
But before you feel like giving up, the good news is that we can choose how we age. With increased health awareness, we have the option to grab hold of Time’s winged chariot and halt it in its tracks. Here are Patrick Holford’s tips to stay healthy and slow the ageing clock.
1. Eat better fats
The average person eats up to 40 per cent of their daily calories in the form of fat – much of this is saturated fat. That’s too much and the wrong kind. Rather than trying to dramatically cut down your fat intake, the important thing is to make sure the fats that you eat are the healthy kind. “That means eating fish, nuts, seeds and their oils and using spreads such as tahini, almond and pumpkin-seed butter, which should be staples in a healthily stocked fridge,” Patrick advises. You should also use good-quality oils, like cold-pressed virgin olive oil, to reduce your intake of artery-clogging saturated fats that increase your risk of heart disease.
2. Go mild on medication
This means discussing with your doctor how best to stay fit and to minimise prescribed drugs as much as possible. Dr Matto advises, “Don’t take medication – especially over-the-counter medicines – unnecessarily because they are harmful and have lots of side effects.”
Patrick agrees, explaining “Not only do many of these drugs come with side-effects but they can, in some cases, be partly responsible for the depletion of essential vitamins and minerals. Statins, for instance, can reduce the production of a vital antioxidant called CoQ10. Stomach acid blockers known as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) can reduce vitamin B12 and magnesium, which are involved in controlling blood pressure.”
3. Take a spoonful of cinnamon
The active ingredient in cinnamon, MCHP, mimics the action of insulin, so a teaspoonful a day helps to remove excess sugar from the bloodstream.
“It also seems to reduce levels of cholesterol and fat in the blood and to decrease blood pressure,” says Patrick. “The mineral chromium also makes you more sensitive to the effects of insulin, reversing insulin resistance and improving blood-sugar control. Some supplements combine chromium with a high-potency cinnamon extract if a teaspoon seems like a lot.” However, it’s worth noting that there are conflicting beliefs on this point in the medical community. Some studies have shown the beneficial effects of cinnamon, while others claim that it can sometimes be harmful in excess. But Dr Matto says, “cinnamon is not harmful if taken in small amounts, for instance half a teaspoon”.
4. Sleep to slim
Not getting enough sleep can make you put on weight, which exacerbates the ageing process, says Patrick. American research has found that less than four hours of sleep makes people 73 per cent more likely to be obese than those getting between seven and eight hours, while an average of five hours gives a 50 per cent greater risk, and even six hours pushes the risk up by 23 per cent. “Sleep is life-enhancing as during the deep-sleep phase, your body releases growth hormone, which stimulates the regeneration of cells,” says Holford.
“Growth hormone also burns fat and builds muscle and stimulates your immune system.”
Avoid alcohol and caffeine after midday if you have difficulty getting to sleep because it suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin for up to ten hours.
5. Move it
“Exercise has a direct impact on a gene linked with laying down fat,” says Patrick. The more exercise you do, the less likely the gene is to push fat into storage and the more likely it is to burn it off. “Beside burning calories, exercise can help to improve blood-sugar levels and build muscle. Muscle-building exercises, such as using weights, makes your body more sensitive to insulin, counteracting the insulin resistance associated with ageing” he says.
“Also, simply getting moving after a meal, such as taking a brisk ten-minute walk, actually helps to get the glucose out of the blood into the cells that need it, such as the brain and muscle cells.”
6. Get the fibre factor
Fibre in complex carbohydrates is what slows down the release of sugars into the blood, so opt for soluble fibres such as those found in oats, which are also present in chia seeds and flax seeds – you can sprinkle these on top of your meal.
“To get maximum fibre effect, try glucomannan fibre from the konjac plant,” Patrick says.
“Add a heaped tablespoonful to a glass of water, then take it at the start of a meal. Glucomannan taken this way will almost halve the blood-sugar spike of that meal, making the whole meal more slow-releasing and therefore healthier.” Dr Matto also recommends including a lot of natural fibre in your diet by eating fruits and vegetables. These also lower cholesterol levels and also relieve constipation.
7. Have fun with friends
And finally, “Get a little rock ‘n’ roll,” says Patrick. “Walk, dance and do any other form of social exercise you can.” Why? We know exercise is necessary to help us remain fit, but building up motivation for it is another issue all together. “Social support is very important,” says Dr Matto. He encourages his patients to exercise with a partner or a friend to keep motivated and make the session more enjoyable. The activity doesn’t have to be extreme, but keeping it regular can make a huge difference. “Studies have shown that 30 minutes of exercise five days a week reduces the chance of getting diabetes in people who are prone to it,” says Dr Matto.
Allowing yourself to be happy is the real key, says Patrick. “Keep your friends around you, stay passionate and engaged but also learn how to relax. Focus on enjoying life.”